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Countless university students have, at some point or another, lamented their heavy amount of homework, wishing for an opportunity to take classes that interested them without the burden of assignments. Universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago allow any Internet user this opportunity. Many schools around the nation have begun to participate in an open online course model where professors post free exams, lecture notes and videotaped lectures online — at their own discretion — so that any person may access, use and learn from their course material. For example, MIT’s Open CourseWare programs range from Cognitive Robotics to Philosophy of Love in the Western World, with more than 2,000 courses to select from.

This new trend of providing open courses to anyone has expanded over recent years with the creation of Massive Open Online Course. The first MOOC was formed in 2008 by George Siemens at the University of Manitoba with the goal of creating an accessible, public sphere for collaborating in an academic setting. About 2,200 people registered for this course, and 150 members regularly posted in the discussion boards, which served as the place of professorial interaction and office hours. The discussion boards of MOOC are designed to distribute the teaching responsibility to the group as a whole, thereby constructing a sense of camaraderie and peer connection among the registrants. As our society becomes increasingly impacted by social network services, this strategy of group learning is helping to successfully foster academic collaboration among curious students.

MOOC’s success has expanded around the country, most notably at Stanford University, where an online artificial intelligence course, which has 250,000 online registrants, is offered by distinguished faculty member Sebastian Thrun and Google Director of Research Peter Norvig. Commonly, the registrants for MOOCs are other university students, but its popularity is expanding and will soon reach a larger audience of any individuals driven by academic curiosity.

Benefits of MOOC are widespread. In our country’s current climate of economic uncertainty, interest in alternate models of the university is rising, and MOOC hopes to be one of the solutions. As the courses are free, a larger number of people have access to valuable academic material that was previously very restricted and exclusive. Because of the non-binding and free nature of the courses, each class experiences different cycles of participation, with each student benefiting from the course as much as they choose to. Those who wish to gain course credit from the MOOC course are charged a fee, thereby preserving the integrity of the physical college degree for those paying tuition at accredited universities.

Our hierarchal university system can often be restrictive and linear, as students attaining specific degrees are required to take certain courses, leaving little time to expand their academic horizons with coursework in other disciplines. MOOC serves as a convenient complement to a university degree, allowing for a biomedical engineering student to foster his or her interest in classical music or permitting a women’s and gender studies major to satisfy his or her curiosity about genetics. MOOC serves as an advantageous learning tool for students taking challenging calculus or physics courses who may benefit from working with multiple teaching styles to understand those tricky integral problems. Furthermore, MOOC serves as a beneficial training tool for those who have completed their studies but wish to strengthen their skills in their current occupation.

While the tangible and immediate benefits of MOOC are obvious, these open online courses are affecting our society’s structure in a more subtle way. MOOC and programs like it are transforming society by allowing a greater exchange of information. This transformation is helping eliminate elitist tendencies of our society to safeguard valuable information, like academic material, to a select portion of the population. UT has yet to join the free online course movement but has a solid selection of priced online courses for credit. As other public research schools, including Georgia Tech University, begin to participate in MOOC, UT should consider this innovation. Universities, always at the forefront of the movement toward modernity and knowledge expansion, are giving a greater number of people access to opportunities for success with programs such as MOOC. While a traditional university education is invaluable and irreplaceable, MOOC provides a beneficial complement and an avenue to life-long learning.

-Waliany is a Plan II and government senior.